From Odessa to Duluth: The journey of Bob Dylan's grandparents
Zigman and Anna Zimmerman came to Duluth from what is today's Ukraine. Their grandson would change the world.
DULUTH — "My grandmother's voice possessed a haunting accent, face always set in a half-despairing expression," Bob Dylan wrote in his 2004 memoir. "Life for her hadn't been easy. She'd come to America from Odessa, a seaport town in southern Russia. It was a town not unlike Duluth, the same kind of temperament, climate and landscape and right on the edge of a big body of water."
Zigman and Anna Zimmerman arrived in Duluth at the beginning of the last century. The Zenith City was the end of a long journey for the Jewish couple and their children, who arrived after fleeing antisemitic persecution in what was then the Russian Empire and in what is today Ukraine. "They were refugees, just like people today," cantor and historian Daniel Singer said. "It's history repeating itself."
In their new home country, the Zimmermans would make history by way of their grandson, Bobby Zimmerman, who would be born in Duluth, grow up in Hibbing, and then move to Minneapolis and adopt his iconic stage name before heading east to New York and stardom.
As the world's eyes turn to Ukraine amid the ongoing Russian invasion , which is sparking a new refugee crisis, the journey of Bob Dylan's grandparents takes on a poignant resonance. The Zimmermans, like Dylan's maternal grandparents, Ben and Florence Stone, were among over 2 million Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe who made their way to the United States in the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century. By the 1920s, about 20,000 Eastern European Jews would settle in Minnesota, and thousands of those came all the way to the Northland.
Diaspora in the Twin Ports
"It was a large Jewish community," Duluth historian Joanne Sher said. "They went to the synagogue; they had organizations they belonged to. They kept kosher, so there were kosher butcher shops. There were kosher bakeries."
The Eastern European immigrants were fleeing pogroms: violent antisemitic attacks that terrorized Jews in the Russian Empire and beyond, starting with an 1821 riot in Odessa. Hundreds of thousands of Jews died in the savage attacks, which preceded the genocide of the Holocaust.
"There was antisemitism coming from the Russians, as well as from the Germans," Singer said. "Jews just had an awful situation that way, in terms of being under attack." In the U.S., "they had (by comparison) very little antisemitism." At the time, that was particularly true of northern Minnesota, where the kind of overt antisemitism seen even in nearby Minneapolis was relatively rare.
"They came to Duluth because other people from Odessa had come to Duluth. You always settled where you knew somebody," Dylan's father, Abram "Abe" Zimmerman, speaking about his parents, Zigman and Anna, told his son's biographer, Robert Shelton, in 1968. Abe said his parents "became citizens early; they didn't stop off on the East Coast — they came right here." He said his mother's sisters followed her to Duluth, with one proceeding to Arizona "because she was consumptive."
Like other migrants to the region, Jewish immigrants saw economic opportunity in the Twin Ports, which flourished as a shipping center once railroads reached the area in 1870. The population boomed, and Jews were among the entrepreneurial newcomers prepared to serve the growing economy through labor and trade. When rich ore deposits were opened on the Iron Range, many took the next step and moved to mining towns.
"It wasn't the jobs in the mines that attracted Jews to the Range, it was the goods and services that the mine operators and miners would need," historian Marilyn J. Chiat wrote in the 2009 book "Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan's Road from Minnesota to the World."
As Orthodox Jews, Zigman and Anna Zimmerman joined Tifereth Israel ("Splendor of Israel"), one of a handful of synagogues operating in Duluth when they arrived. It was a pillar of Duluth's Russian Jewish community.
Tifereth Israel would later merge with Duluth's Temple Israel, which today stands as the only active, physical synagogue in northern Minnesota . The Zimmermans would have originally worshiped with the Tifereth Israel congregation in a house at Third Avenue and Fifth Street, then in a fine brick building at 302 E. Fourth St., completed in 1922. That building was torn down in the 1990s after a stint serving a largely Finnish Lutheran congregation who called it a "Finnagogue."
The Zimmermans wouldn't have considered themselves Ukrainian. "Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire, and so people usually just said they were Russian," Sher explained. The Ukrainian People's Republic was formed after the Russian Revolution in 1917, and was shortly thereafter forcibly integrated into the Soviet Union, regaining its independence in 1991 when the USSR broke up.
A new life in Duluth
Zigman Zimmerman initially worked as a peddler and later a more established retailer, plying a shoe trade he carried over from Odessa, according to the definitive book on Dylan's northern Minnesota roots: "Just Like Bob Zimmerman's Blues: Dylan in Minnesota." Though author David Engel declined to be interviewed for this article ("My research on the Zimmerman antecedents is remote in time so I expect to remain enigmatically Dylanesque," he wrote in an email to the News Tribune), his carefully researched 1997 book is widely cited as the best existing source on the subject.
In the book, Engel notes that when the United States entered World War I in 1918, "aliens" had to register with the government — and disclose whether they had any relatives in the war. Upon registering, Zigman said his uncle, Wolfe Zimmerman, was a soldier in the Russian Army; Wolfe may have been conscripted against his will, as many Russian Jews were.
"Jewish families had issues with the men in their family being recruited for the Russian military," said Singer, "and they did everything that they possibly could to stop it because they were typically brought on to the front lines of wars."
Abe, the Zimmermans' fifth of six children, arrived in 1911. He attended Liberty School, Washington Junior High, and finally Central High School, where he graduated in 1929.
By all accounts, Abe and his siblings were industrious. "We were all from immigrant parents," Abe told Shelton. "Everybody worked when they were 7 years old — you sold papers or shone shoes." (Abe's older sister, Minnie, worked for the Duluth Herald, predecessor to this paper, as a stenographer.)
In his 2004 memoir, "Chronicles: Volume One," Dylan described his father as "plain speaking and straight talking." When one of Bobby's teachers told Abe that his son had "the nature of an artist," according to Dylan, a befuddled Abe asked: "Isn't an artist a fellow who paints?"
Zigman and Anna lived at 22 1/2 W. First St. before moving to 221 N. Lake Ave. in 1914. In the early 1920s, Zigman and another Jew, Jacob Crystal, opened a shoe store at 19 N. First Ave. W., and the family moved to 725 E. Third St. Finally, Anna and her children moved to 402 E. Fifth St., then 308 E. Fifth St. and ultimately 310 E. Fifth St. — with Zigman, who'd turned to clerking, living separately in the Kingsley Heights Apartments at 105 W. First St.
The family's life was centered on a diverse community that stretched up into the Central Hillside neighborhood from the central business district downtown. "It was all peoples," Abe Zimmerman said to Shelton. "In fact, the area we lived in was predominately Scandinavian. A few Jewish families here and there, but there was no ghetto."
Dylan's maternal grandparents, the Stones, helped pave the way for Bobby's Hibbing upbringing: Lithuanian immigrant Ben Solemovitz (who changed the family name to Stone) met his wife, Florence Edelstein, on the Iron Range, where they would run a series of family stores in the Hibbing area. Their children included the lively Beatrice "Beatty" Stone, born in 1915.
Abe met Beatty Stone at a New Year's Eve party in Duluth at the end of 1931, and they married in 1934 after a courtship that was somewhat slowed by snow: given the era's modes of conveyance, for a Duluthian to be dating a girl from Hibbing definitely counted as a long-distance relationship.
The newlyweds initially lived with Anna, then moved to first 503 E. Third St. and later 519 Third Ave. E. Abe was working as a supervisor at Standard Oil; Beatty was a saleswoman at a clothing store. They lived near Tifereth Israel, Abe's alma mater Central High, and St. Mary's Hospital. It was at St. Mary's, on May 24, 1941, that Beatty gave birth to the couple's first son, Robert.
Abe and Beatty moved to Hibbing in 1947 and lived near her family after Abe contracted polio when the Duluth-born Bobby was young. Abe's brothers had also established an appliance store in Hibbing, where Abe brought his administrative experience from Standard Oil.
"During the polio epidemic, I only stayed one week in the hospital because they didn't have the equipment," Abe told Shelton. "I’ll never forget coming home; I had to crawl up the front steps like an ape."
Leaving a legacy
Just two years after his son Abe's marriage, Zigman Zimmerman fell dead on Second Avenue West, between Superior and First streets, at age 58. The cause of death was a heart attack, brought on by the most ironic circumstance imaginable in the famously frigid city of Duluth: a punishing summer heat wave. According to Zigman's obituary, he and Anna were still married at the time of his death.
In his memoir, Dylan wrote about his grandmother, Anna: "She lived back in Duluth on the top floor of a duplex on 5th Street. From a window in the back room you could see Lake Superior, ominous and foreboding, iron bulk freighters and barges off in the distance, the sound of foghorns to the right and left." Though Dylan didn't mention it, Anna's synagogue, Tifereth Israel, would have been in the foreground of that view, just a block away on Fourth Street.
Dylan described the pipe-smoking Anna as having only one leg, and wrote that her family had originally come from Turkey. Neither of those assertions is documented elsewhere, to Singer's knowledge. Dylan "invented a lot of fictional stories of his family background, and that’s part of the fun of unpacking his genealogy and finding threads of truth within the fiction," Singer wrote in an email to the News Tribune.
Anna Zimmerman outlived her husband by nearly two decades, living in Hibbing for a time before her death in St. Paul in 1955.
"At that time, there was only one Jewish nursing home, and it was in St. Paul," Sher said. "So she had died there and then was brought back (up north) for burial, which was quite common at that time, because usually older Jewish people at that time didn't go into the nursing homes that were in this area, they went down to Sholom Home."
Both Anna and Zigman are buried in Tifereth Israel Cemetery, just north of Duluth in Rice Lake. Their graves aren't next to each other; that, too, was common for the time, Sher said. "Years ago, people did not buy double plots; they bought one." That custom had changed by the time Dylan's parents died: Abe in 1968, Beatty in 2000. They're also buried in Tifereth Israel Cemetery, where they share a stone.
As Bob Dylan, Zigman and Anna Zimmerman's grandson would become one of the most influential musicians in American history. He was signed to Columbia Records by John Hammond — grandson of the man who founded West Superior . Singer is currently writing a book about the connections among Dylan, Hammond and the Jewish community that found sanctuary in the Twin Ports . (Not that Hammond shared his grandfather's interest in Superior, which the record man called "one of the dreariest places in the country.")
In 2017, Odessa set out to celebrate its connection to the first rock 'n' roller to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. In the wake of Dylan's 2016 Nobel, the city of Odessa partnered with the Jewish education organization Limmud FSU to host a series of activities, including a lecture, a concert and a poster campaign. Images of the artist were splashed across the city with the words, "Bob Dylan! One more pride of Odessa."
At least, that's how it was translated by the Times of Israel , which sent reporter Gavin Rabinowitz to the event. Rabinowitz observed a muted response to the Dylan celebration: a phenomenon familiar to Minnesotans who've long witnessed ambivalent feelings toward Dylan in the North Country he left. "One of the reasons he changed his name was to become an American singer," scholar Amitai Achiman admitted in Odessa. "I’m not so sure he wanted to be connected to his eastern European roots."
While Dylan's showmanship may have come more from the spirited Stone side than the stoic Zimmermans, his paternal grandmother was the guest of honor at a pivotal moment in the young Bobby's life. The boy was just 4 years old, Dylan's mother, Beatty, told Robert Shelton, when Anna Zimmerman took Bobby to a Mother's Day event that Beatty couldn't attend. At this point, Bobby and his parents were still living at their Third Avenue home in Duluth.
"He gets up, and they see this little codger get up with his tousled curly hair and he is going on the stage too. He stamps his foot up there," Beatty recounted to Shelton, "and he commands attention and he says, 'If everybody in this room will keep quiet, I will sing for my grandmother Zimmerman. This is Mother's Day and I'm going to sing "Some Sunny Morning."' And he sang it, and of course they tore the place apart."
When Bobby Zimmerman became Bob Dylan and eventually married, he and his wife, Sara, had children — including one daughter. They named her Anna.